UX Series 1: Universal Design and Digital Accessibility

Posted on Wednesday, 1 July 2020 by Sarah Horton

This is the first post in an introductory series on UX and accessibility strategy.

Universal design is an inclusive design framework used to create barrier-free designs that are navigable and usable by everyone, including people with disabilities. But what is universal design, and how does it relate to digital accessibility? This article presents an overview of the objectives and principles of universal design, provides common universal design examples, and explores how universal design applies to digital accessibility and designing a barrier-free digital world.

A Universal Web

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. — Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee declared universal access fundamental to the web when he announced the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997. WAI has been instrumental in defining and promoting technical standards for web accessibility, and we are fortunate to have tools like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that provide the specifications for building a universal web. But just as following building accessibility standards does not necessarily produce equitable physical spaces and facilities, following web accessibility standards does not guarantee a universal web. For that, we need creativity and design.

Photo with platform lift on the right and five-step staircase with railing on the left. The stairs and lift are inside an entrance hall with high ceilings and windows.

Figure 1: In some contexts, platform lifts are permitted as an “accessible route.” However, the experience of using a platform lift, for example, in time, complexity, and convenience, is not comparable to using stairs.

Technical standards provide specifications and requirements for building a barrier-free world. Universal design provides a design framework for combining principles and requirements into building a barrier-free and equitable world.

Principles of Universal Design

The Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University by a consortium of universal design researchers and practitioners, including Bettye Rose Connell, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, and Gregg Vanderheiden. The project was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Over 20 years and many unforeseen developments later, these principles remain vital in guiding the design of buildings, spaces, and products that are “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

The 7 Principles of Universal Design

  • Principle 1: Equitable Use — The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Principle 2: Flexibility in Use — The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use — Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Principle 4: Perceptible Information — The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Principle 5: Tolerance for Error — The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Principle 6: Low Physical Effort — The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use — Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

— Copyright © 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design

Common universal design examples in the physical world

We can look around us and see features of the built environment that, when implemented following accessibility requirements, are usable by everyone.

  • A ramp installed with the correct slope, dimensions, and surface is an example of “Equitable Use,” since people who are on foot or use a cane, wheelchair, or scooter can all use the same entry.
  • A door lever that is positioned at the correct height and is operable with one hand is an example of “Flexibility in Use” since people can operate the handle using a right, left, or both hands.
  • An emergency call button with a tactile and visible symbol is an example of “Simple and Intuitive Use,” since the button is simple, consistent, prominent, and labeled with a universal symbol.
  • A fire alarm with an audible and visible signal is an example of “Perceptible Information,” since the signal is distinct and readily noticeable using vision and hearing.
  • A railing with the correct diameter that is positioned at the correct height is an example of “Tolerance for Error,” since the railing minimizes the risk of accidents by providing a barrier and graspable support to help minimize accidents.
  • An emergency exit door with a properly positioned push bar and that meets the minimal opening force requirements is an example of “Low Physical Effort,” since opening the door does not require strength and reach.
  • A push pad that meets requirements for height and force, is an example of “Size and Space for Approach and Use,” since the push pad is clearly visible, reachable, and can be easily operated.

Connecting universal design with digital accessibility

While the principles were created in the early days of the web, universal design concepts form the underpinning of a universal web, for example:

  • Equitable Use means everyone uses the same website, without a separate “accessible” site or an “accessibility mode.”
  • Flexibility in Use means people can operate websites using different input methods, such as touch, speech, gaze, a mouse, or a keyboard.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use means websites are straightforward, with clean layouts, consistent interaction, and clear information.
  • Perceptible Information means content is provided in text as well as visually or audibly, so that the information is accessible using different senses.
  • Tolerance for Error means interactions are designed to promote success and minimize risks, for example, by providing confirmations and feedback.
  • Low Physical Effort means people can efficiently operate websites using their preferred input device (such as a keyboard).
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use means the necessary tools to operate a website interface are visible and readily available.

As with the physical world, digital accessibility standards support universal design principles. For example, the WCAG “Enough Time” Guideline supports the “Tolerance for Error” universal design principle, with the Timing Adjustable (2.2.1) Success Criterion defining time limit requirements to ensure people who need more time to complete tasks are not at risk of making errors or failing tasks due to session timeouts.

An inclusive user experience, or “UX,” is one where universal design is incorporated into design practice and guided by digital accessibility standards. We’ll explore user experience and digital accessibility in the next article in this series.

More reading

This article is the first of a series of introductory articles explaining the importance of user experience’s importance to digital accessibility strategy and practice. The other posts are:

For more in-depth information, read our Inclusion Blog’s UX articles. To learn more how we can help you integrate UX best practices into your digital accessibility strategy, view our UX Services or contact us.

Sarah Horton was TPG’s Strategy Lead, joining the company in April 2013 after 20 years working as a user experience designer, developer, strategist, and lead in higher education, at Yale University, Dartmouth College, and Harvard University. She has done outreach to improve user experience, including books (Web Style Guide and A Web for Everyone), working groups, presentations, and articles, including an article on web accessibility for the New York Times. Sarah was closely involved with TPG’s accessible user experience offerings, including user research, usability testing, and accessibility strategy and program development.


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